Berkeley teacher Yvette Felarca (right) with co-defendant Michael Williams (pointing) outside the Sacramento courthouse on April 20, after a new hearing was set for their motion to dismiss felony charges. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Nearly 30 supporters of Berkeley teacher Yvette Felarca packed into a Sacramento courthouse Friday morning, but they will have to wait until a new court date in May to find out whether Judge Michael Savage will dismiss charges stemming from a violent 2016 white supremacist rally and counter protest.

Felarca, a teacher at King Middle School and vocal figure in the radical group By Any Means Necessary, is one of three counter-demonstrators who, along with one suspected neo-Nazi, are facing felony assault charges in the aftermath of the bloody June 2016 rally. Attorneys for Felarca’s co-defendants, Porfirio Paz and Michael Williams, are joining with her lawyer, Ronald Cruz, in the motion to dismiss the charges.

In his motion, Cruz alleges the California Highway Patrol and the Sacramento County District Attorney are colluding in a “political witch-hunt” against Felarca and other anti-fascists, and says a video showing Felarca punching a man at the Sacramento rally is “unauthenticated.”

In January, a Sacramento Superior Court judge cut a hearing short because he said attorneys hadn’t provided sufficient information, the Sacramento Bee reported, and postponed a scheduled February hearing until April. Friday morning, a newly assigned judge pushed it again to May 4.

Felarca is facing the felony charge of assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury, and the misdemeanor charge of inciting a riot. Paz and Williams are both facing felony charges for assault with deadly weapons. Williams has a prior attempted-murder conviction from 1986, which, if he was convicted, would affect his potential sentence in the Sacramento case.

William Planer is the fourth person facing a felony charge connected to the Sacramento rally, for assault with a deadly weapon.

Members of the Traditionalist Workers Party and Golden State Skinheads, white supremacist groups, held the permitted rally on the steps of the state Capitol. Many anti-fascist demonstrators showed up to stop them.

Felarca was captured on video repeatedly punching a man, and yelling at him to “get the fuck off our streets.” The man had been carrying a flag with the neo-Nazi Celtic Cross symbol on it and called on “antifa” to come over to him. The video shows counter-protesters coming to attack him, and Felarca approaching him at another point in the rally. Two other counter-demonstrators are also shown in the video kicking him on the ground, before police step in.

In interviews later that day, Felarca is seen wearing a bloody head bandage. In all, at least 14 people sustained injuries, including several who were stabbed, according to the California Highway Patrol, which spent several months investigating and compiling a lengthy report on the rally. While the agency determined that around 100 people are suspected of committing various criminal acts at the event, the Sacramento DA has said most either don’t meet the office’s standards for filing charges or are still unidentifiable.

In his motion to dismiss the case, Cruz argued that the DA and CHP has intentionally let violent fascists run free. Cruz criticized the prosecution for, he said, including materials regarding Felarca’s activism from the 1990s, her union organizing and a lawsuit she brought against Berkeley Unified, “documents that all point to the political targeting of Felarca,” in court filings.

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The attorney said law enforcement stood back the day of the rally, failing to protect the victims of the white supremacists’ violence — a criticism made by the other side as well, for the police’s failure to protect their members.

“Anti-fascist protesters were stabbed, bludgeoned, and had their bones broken by the fascists,” Cruz wrote, and said Felarca herself was taken to the hospital, where she received 24 stitches on her head and arm.

“If the prosecution of Felarca, Paz, and Williams proceeds, then Donald Trump will have already achieved one of his central aims: the substitution of authoritarianism for constitutional due process rights and democratic norms,” Cruz wrote. “A policy of naked state discrimination and persecution of racial minorities and left-wing political activists would be a fact and reality. The rule of law would be replaced by tyranny.” In a response to Cruz’s motion, DA Anne Marie Schubert and Deputy DA Paris Coleman wrote that “every assertion made in defendants’ motion is either inaccurate or fabricated.” The prosecution questioned why the defendants insisted the DA is only going after anti-fascists, when Planer, a suspected neo-Nazi, is facing a felony charge as well. The DA’s office acknowledged that many additional crimes were committed by people on both sides, but said most were minor. “In this case, the prosecution chose to focus on those individuals who could be positively identified and were captured on video committing felony offenses,” the document said. Law enforcement is also continuing to try to identify others who committed crimes, and has conducted DNA tests on two bloody knives found on the ground, which Cruz had claimed were ignored, the response said. Cruz’s motion also includes photographs of apparent neo-Nazis holding knives. Regardless, prosecution wrote, failure to pursue other charges would not disqualify cases against the defendants. “Their argument is, in effect, that because there are other perpetrators that committed crimes that have not been charged, it is not fair for these defendants to be held accountable for their actions,” the response said. “Even if the extraordinary allegations of bias and collusion posited by the defense in their motion to dismiss were true, and they are not, they would have no bearing on the guilt or innocence of the defendants currently before the court.” It appears, prosecutors wrote, that the defendants’ motion “was drafted only to satisfy their desire to make a political statement.”
Yvette Felarca (left) protests with other BAMN members in Berkeley on March 4, 2017. Photo: Daniel McPartlan

The DA asked for the case to be heard in court, “not through Facebook, YouTube, chanting on street corners, or through the press. The evidence in this case will demonstrate that there were bad actors on all sides of the conflict on the very steps of our State Capital. However, no one is above the law, and no one is beneath the protection of the law, no matter how repugnant his or her rhetoric or misguided his or her ideals,” the response said.

Effects of Sacramento case felt in Berkeley

In the hallway outside the courtroom, waiting with about 30 to 40 others to find out when the hearing would be held, Felarca’s attorney and BAMN leader Shanta Driver said the events in Sacramento had far-reaching consequences.

“If police had acted properly in Sacramento, there would not have been Charlottesville,” said the lawyer, referring to the white-supremacist march in Virginia, where a participant plowed his car into counter-protesters and killed Heather Heyer. “What fascists got away with here emboldened them there,” Driver said.

“If police had acted properly in Sacramento, there would not have been Charlottesville.”

After the hearing was rescheduled, Driver, Felarca and Williams addressed supporters outside, on the sunny courthouse plaza.

“This is gonna set the precedent for this to not happen again,” Williams said. “All these alt-right people, they keep talking about, there’s no more prejudice and there’s no more racism. We’re proving that stuff is very highly real…We’re fighting for everyone, for our children, so you can live in a safer environment.”

He and Felarca thanked the crowd for rallying behind them.

“The reason we’re able to come out here every time, and feel good and confident about coming out here, is because we know there’s a movement that backs us,” Felarca said. “It shows the judge that the whole nation is looking at this. This is a test case.”

The Sacramento case has had implications in Berkeley, where Felarca has also participated in many local protests.

A few months after the Capitol rally, in September 2016, Berkeley Unified placed Felarca on administrative leave. While a petition calling for her to be fired after the Sacramento events garnered hundreds of signatures, supporters of the teacher came to a School Board meeting the next month, demanding Felarca be allowed to teach again, and shutting down the meeting with their protest. She was returned to the classroom shortly after. Later, court records showed Felarca has long had a contentious relationship with her employer.

In February 2017, Felarca appeared on Fox News to defend her views, prompting opponents to flood BUSD phone lines and inboxes with more than 1,000 calls and emails demanding her ouster. In October, conservative group Judicial Watch filed a records request asking for documents and communications referring to the middle school teacher. Felarca has sued BUSD to prevent the district from releasing that information.

A hearing for that case is set for May 15.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...